How Christopher Plummer transformed All the Money in the World after replacing Spacey

William Mullally

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It’s late December, and Christopher Plummer and I are sitting in Beverly Hills. It’s the morning before the world premiere of All the Money in the World, a movie that, just six weeks earlier, he wasn’t even a part of. Now, he’s the film’s most talked-about star.

“How’s it going so far?” I ask.

“You really want to know?” he quips.

Christopher Plummer’s career had already been one for the ages. His performance in The Sound of Music (1965) is beloved by generations around the world. His supporting role in Beginners (2010) at then-82 years old made him the oldest man to win an Academy Award for acting. With All the Money in the World, the now 88-year-old Plummer has created a new Hollywood legend.

When serious allegations against Kevin Spacey were made public at the end of October, many speculated that the film was doomed. Instead, director Ridley Scott called up the man he had considered casting in the role from the start—Christopher Plummer. With no time to spare, Plummer replaced Kevin Spacey, filming all of his scenes in just nine days. Just over two weeks later, he was nominated for a Golden Globe.

“Is this the world record for fastest turn around between a film performance and Golden Globe nomination?” I ask.

“That’s extraordinary. It hit me in the solar plexus and everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. It’s very nice. You’re looking for some kind of reward for very hard work which you did under incredible circumstances. When that came along I thought, how nice! Somebody up there, or down there, likes me!”

Plummer plays J Paul Getty, the real-life oil magnate who was once the richest man who ever lived. In 1973, his grandson was kidnapped, and Getty refused to pay the ransom. Usually, when Plummer plays a historical figure, he has either spent years watching them, or months studying them.

“This time, with J. Paul Getty, there wasn’t time to do any research. I had to use my instincts and imagination and be very loyal to the script, which I thought was very well written,” Plummer tells me.

The film was completely finished when Plummer came aboard. Although Ridley Scott offered, Plummer chose to never watch a moment of Kevin Spacey’s performance.

“It had nothing to do with Kevin,” says Plummer, on the decision. “I would have done the same with any actor who I was replacing. I don’t want to see their performance because it might rub off on me. I want to be my own original. That’s why.”

Unbeknownst to him, he played the character in a completely different way than did Kevin Spacey—he transformed a cold villain into a man with a beating heart.

“It was very much intentional. I felt he needed that color more than any other color. The rest of the thing was his sort of coldness and his mystery—his disapproval of people interfering in his life. All that is fascinating, but it needed warmth. Of course he must have adored his grandson. He did have a heart somewhere, for God’s sake. I really concentrated on giving him warmth.”

When I ask Ridley Scott about it, he says that the different approaches are due to who the two actors are as people.

“Kevin is a different creature, you know. He’s cooler. A cooler being—though I don’t mean ‘cool’ cool. I would say colder. But still a very, very good actor. What he brought to that to bear, it didn’t have that warmth that Christopher has. Christopher already has this inherent warmth physically—his smile, his face, his eyes twinkle. He brings the same words a different level. When you have that warmth with those words, somehow, it makes it more chilling.”

Co-star Michelle Williams, who plays the mother of J Paul Getty’s kidnapped grandson, noticed the same quality.

“[Their approaches were] very different. Christopher Plummer has a twinkle in his eye. He’s charming. In some ways, that makes it even more upsetting—more tragic.”

To Williams, that approach completely changes how she interpreted the character. Plummer’s performance evoked a greater truth about the world’s most villainous historical figures.

“When I watched him work, I thought, this is a man who knows not what he does. [Plummer’s J. Paul Getty] makes justifications in his own mind for his extreme miserliness and his extreme cruelty in making this child be held for five to six months. In his own mind, it makes sense to him. That’s the thing that’s scary about dictatorship or people in power is that, in their own mind, it makes sense to them. They don’t have any inkling that they’re doing the wrong thing or they’re being bad. To them, they’re being good, and they’re doing the right thing. So how do you have a conversation with [a person like] that? It’s very difficult.”

To make it work, Plummer relied on Scott’s meticulous yet efficient approach.

“He has the eye of a painter. He really does. He has a wonderful eye. He shoots fast. He’s like Hitchcock in that he cuts the picture before it hits the floor. It’s wonderful, because in my case, everything was ready. He knew where he was going to cut, and he just left it to me to do it. He doesn’t do too many takes. For that, I love him. If I do too many takes I get mechanical. You start to worry when you do take 30. He’ll do two or three and that’s it.”

Ridley may be efficient, but he’s also famously hard to satisfy. He’s released multiple cuts of Blade Runner (1982) over a period spanning decades. I have to ask—is this the cut of All the Money in the World he prefers?

“Yeah. I would never look back at what I had. What I had was done, finished, ready. I was very happy. What I’ve got now is different. So I think it’s an invalid question—yeah, I’m very happy with what I have now.”

- All the Money in the World is in theaters across the Middle East on January 4th -